“I’m afraid Mary’s Dead.”
Lucio Fulci’s obsession with eyes says a lot about his cinematic intentions. Eyes are often said to be the ‘windows to the soul’. Within them lies the suggestion of something beyond the corporeal, something intangible and unknowable, and the intense focus on them in City of the Living Dead reveals the film’s preoccupation with the otherworldly. The first of Fulci’s unofficial Gates of Hell Trilogy, this 1980 horror is less of a zombie movie and more of a supernatural thriller centered around religion. The zombies themselves, when they do appear, are not always animated and raving, but instead materialize out of thin air, flashing on and off the screen like ghouls. Mrs Holden, one of the “infected” (I use this term very loosely), manages both to bite someone’s hand, and transport herself from a mortuary to a kitchen floor without so much as a flinch. And the zombified antagonist of the film scares his victims by popping up unannounced, hanging in front of them from various timber beams and ceilings.
Set in the fictional town of Dunwich, New England (made famous by H.P. Lovecraft’s 1928 short story The Dunwich Horror), the beginning of the film shows a priest hanging himself from a tree in his Church’s cemetery, thus opening up one of the seven gateways to hell. Eerily Gothic 80s music from Fabio Frizzi accompanies this spine-chilling scene, and helps to establish the story’s surreal tone. From here we see physic Mary Woodhouse seemingly die during a seance, but not before she has had a vision of the priest, and of the dead rising from their graves. At one point her eye’s iris frames a shot of the hanging man, linking the two themes of religion and the supernatural that have already been been set up within the first ten minutes of the film. Investigative reporter Peter Bell (another Fulci film with a journalist named Peter) is assigned to Mary’s case, and ends up being the one to save her from being buried alive after she wakes up in her coffin. The two then join forces with psychiatrist Gerry and patient Sandra to try and discover the truth behind Mary’s visions, and the mysterious deaths that are plaguing Dunwich.
Compared to Zombie, released a year before this, City of the Living Dead is a deeper, more metaphysical film, but one that still revels in the sickening gore that characterizes Fulci’s horror. The voodoo of old zombie movies is left behind here, and replaced with Italian Catholicism. The priest’s death can be symbolic of the death of religion itself, and it is this representation of a “heinous” act which gives way to the horrors that follow. The zombies exist within the absence of faith, and prowl through the dark side of human consciousness. When Gerry is faced with a grotesque Emily returned from the dead (who looks somewhat Carrie-esque), he manages to make her disappear simply by closing his eyes. This moments suggests that the evil in the film gains its power from the evil within the mind itself, a concept that is surprisingly complex for a horror often considered nothing more than a gore-fest.
And yet, don’t get me wrong, there is an abundance of gore: brain squishing, guts vomiting gore, that makes this one of the most inventively bloody films that I’ve ever seen. Staring into the priest’s eyes makes one girl throw up the contents of her stomach (and I don’t mean food-wise) whilst her eyes bleed. Strangely, it’s only the females in the film who seem susceptible to this particularly nasty hypnotism, with the males simply looking on in dumb horror. The zombie bodies are almost always worm-covered and decomposing, with red-raw flesh and bones on show, and one of the most horrifying scenes involves a man pushing a boy’s head through a drill bit (this scene was actually cut when the film was first released in the UK).
With some wonderfully stupid lines of dialogue (“the air in Dunwich is getting awful thick”), and some bizarre sound design (monkey and baby noises?), City of the Living Dead is definitely flawed, but is impressive in its unexpected handling of heavy, religious themes. Some standout scenes such as the coffin opening, where Peter repeatedly hacks into the wood, narrowly missing Mary’s face each time, are proof that Fulci knows exactly how to entertain his audience. You can see here many of the ideas that were to be explored further in the next (and arguably better) film of the trilogy, The Beyond, such as the presence of the supernatural, and the idea of the child being possessed (one explanation for the bizarre ending is that Emily’s brother becomes evil and attacks Mary and Gerry, but that this footage was lost), and if not a perfect horror, this film can be admired for its far-reaching ambitions, and bravely shocking themes.
FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ 1/2